How Did CNN Get Hitched with a Tea Party PAC Anyway?

The "Communist News Network" is paired with the "Astroturf Express"

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CNN and the Tea Party Express are co-hosting Monday's Republican primary debate, and the organizations make an odd pair. The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty gives some indication of how unusual the partnership is, noting that a man at the event's front gate referred to the TV host as the "Communist News Network." Why is an activist group teaming up with the mainstream media it hates -- and why is a mainstream media organization partnering with a conservative political action committee?

When CNN announced the debate last December, CNN Political Director Sam Feist noted that, "The Tea Party movement is a fascinating, diverse, grassroots force that already has drastically changed the country's political landscape." But inside the murky world of intra-tea disputes, there are those who see it a bit differently -- as the "Astroturf Express," to be specific.

Republican consultants Howard Kaloogian, Sal Russo, and Joe Wierzbicki ran political action committee Our Country Deserves Better, campaigned against Barack Obama in 2008. The gang got their start first in the successful 2003 recall effort against California governor Gray Davis. In 2004, they dubbed their outfit Move America Forward (you know, like MoveOn) and tried to counter Michael Moore's critique of the Iraq war in Fahrenheit 9/11. They have nothing if not a gift for grabbing headlines. Noticing the first Tea Party protests sprung up in 2009, Russo proposed a nationwide bus tour to "position us as a growing force/leading force as the 2010 elections come into focus," Politico's Kenneth P. Vogel reports. The Tea Party Express poured tons of money into the 2010 elections -- $350,000 in the last weeks of the Massachusetts special election for Senate won by Scott Brown, plus it helped secure the Republican nominations for Senate candidates Christine O'Donnell and Joe Miller, both of whom lost the general election.

But many Tea Party activists reject the group. Tea Party Patriots have "worked hard to distance ourselves from the Tea Party Express because of their close affiliation with the Republican Party, the Republican establishment and their PAC," national coordinator Debbie Dooley said in 2010. When Patriots co-founded Amy Kremer switched sides to work for Express, it caused a mini-scandal among the conservative activists. Though national leaders were diplomatic -- "We can't be involved with PACs. We want to make sure the organizations we align with are in line with our core values -- that they’re not just supporting one party over the other," Patriots's national organizer said -- local leaders were mad. One group said Express employees were "unfit to credibly represent the movement." Last month, the Tea Party group FreedomWorks (which has been accused by Democrats of being an astroturf front as well) broke up with the Tea Party Express in August when the latter group allowed the "phony" Mitt Romney, with his liberal resume, to participate in a "Reclaiming America" tour event in New Hampshire.
So why did CNN join forces with the Republican PAC? Salon's Alex Pareene called it a desperate plea for attention. Roger L. Simon said the network was merely "looking to find its way in the post-Larry King universe." But why the Tea Party Express would stoop to CNN's level eluded him. Free Republic posters were similarly baffled. But it makes sense. If the Tea Party Express is just working to have influence within the Republican Party, of course it needs to cultivate the establishment media. They want to be establishment too, someday.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.